Immigration and its discontents: Challenges and tensions between vulnerability and growth

[1] Andrea Rihm

We live in a time of marked fluidity. Some call it hypermodernity (Lipovetsky, 2006), some liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000) while others yet have argued that migration is one of the defining features of our time (Esses, Deaux, Lalonde & Brown, 2010; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). In fact, it is estimated that one in every thirty people does not live in their country of origin, representing the greatest number recorded in history (Esses et al., 2010; OIM, 2013; Ravanal, 2005; Suárez-Orozco, Bang y Kim, 2010) For many, life –and the continuous search for better life conditions– translates thus into a series of “comings and goings” (Núñez, 2005).

The sociologist Eva Ilouz (2007) has argued that one of the greatest changes psychoanalysis introduced in our culture was ushering in a new emotional style; one that incorporated the possibility to rethink and reformulate the position of the self in relation with its own past. One could argue that immigration does the same.

Immigration confronts migrants with the uncertainty of an open-ended destiny, one that needs to be redefined within the frame of new cultural referents. Immigration challenges people to rebuild a sense of identity, to change and to integrate into a new culture, while simultaneously developing a complex process of mourning the loss of their culture of origin (Lijtmaer, 2001) and still remaining attached to their previous history in order to maintain some sense of personal coherence (Akhtar, 1995; Arfuch, 2010, Camilleri & Malewska-Peyre, 1997; DeFina, 2003, Grinberg & Grinberg, 1996, Tummala-Narra, 2009). Adding even more complexity to this already complicated scenario, all these challenges must be faced without having their former social network available and in the midst of an unknown environment, which makes it more difficult to display previously successful strategies to deal with stressful situations.

Winnicott (1971) posited that culture works as a liaison between past, present and future, constituting a transitional space that is shared by individuals and the community where they belong. Thus, culture provides a sense of continuity through individual development, operating as background. In the same vein, Boulanger (2004) has characterized culture as the familiar context where persons “immerse” every day. Therefore, the backdrop offered by culture is often taken for granted and goes unquestioned and naturalized. As Yi (2014) argued, we tend to live in a “culture-blind” fashion most of the time. But immigration disrupts this sense of continuity and calls into question precisely what seemed “obvious” before, because it brings to the fore the experience of difference (Ipp, 2013). Immigration can set the stage for a period of great vulnerability.

Maybe because of the magnitude of all these changes and challenges, many descriptions and analysis of migratory experiences are quite somber, leaving aside its brighter dimensions; dimensions that often relate with the experience of cultural opening and personal growth (Akhtar, 1999; Bobowik, 2013).

This article intends to reflect on how this tension between increased vulnerability and self-growth unfolds, often marked by experiences of profound inner contradictions. To do so, it will draw on the experiences of Ana and Jaime[2], two Colombian young adults who migrated to Chile in their early twenties. It will be argued that – despite what cultural trends might mandate regarding autonomy, agency and fortitude – in their cases, the acceptance of the vulnerability and uncertainty triggered by immigration was key for them to become increasingly comfortable with the overall experience, and to attain meaning and growth from it. Their experiences also show that immigration played a major role in their processes of repositioning in relation to cultural norms of class and gender, in a way that allowed them to gain greater personal freedom.

Ana and Jaime are both professionals, and in Colombia they belonged to the upper-middle class. Their personal safety was not endangered at the time of their migration, and they chose to do it for financial reasons: Ana migrated hoping to develop professionally, and Jaime migrated with his parents due to economic hardships related with the political crisis in Colombia in the early two-thousands. From various angles they could be categorized as privileged, and hardly exemplify what one envisions as migrants facing conditions of social vulnerability. This particularity often has meant that others have called into question the legitimacy of their migratory project, and confronted them with the question, “Why don’t you go back to your country and fight to improve the situation there?”

For them, the process of becoming migrants has also meant the process of embracing their decision to leave Colombia, and authorizing themselves to stay away. They chose to stay in Chile despite the fact that they could return. And it is in that decision, constantly renewed, where the interplay between vulnerability and growth takes place. Not even their privileged situation in Colombia could protect them from feeling the hit of immigration and the loss of a sustained sense of who they were. Vulnerability unavoidably sneaked in. As Jaime expressed:

It’s like someone removes the floor from under you, like someone takes away that protective thing…, uhmm…which is like to be left unprotected, like to exit a shell, like some of your…, of your protection is taken away, that which makes you be you.” (B, p. 64)

The loss of that “protective shell” entails the loss of certainty, of the cultural “know how” of the implicit knowledge of how to manage and how to be. As Ana put it:

You arrive here and…, you are no one really…, and you have to start creating a path, start…, like to find your way […] it’s like to be thrown at a place blindfolded…, to see what you do, where you go…, that’s how it was.” (A, pp. 28, 144)

This profound sense of loss was something they had not weighted or fully anticipated. They had experienced the departure from Colombia as a traumatic moment, despite the hopes they harbored for the future, but what struck them the most was how different culture felt upon their arrival. They had not expected that despite sharing such a significant degree of cultural heritage (including the language) both countries could embrace such different ways of life. Santiago struck them as a socially fragmented city, highly classist and turned inward, where people barely talked to their neighbors and moved among their own circle, where celebrations were always indoors and involved talking more than music or dance. They felt that the sense of community they had experienced with their neighbors in Colombia was no longer available, and that somehow, culture did not offer a sense of protection in times of crises anymore. They described feeling profoundly lonely and many times disoriented and lost. They also experienced different forms of discrimination based on their nationality. Thus, for them immigration was an emotional process that could hardly be conceptualized in clear and simple terms. On the contrary, it was inhabited by experiences and emotions of inner turmoil and contradiction. As Jaime said:

For me it’s like… too many crossed emotions, when I think of the migration issue, my migration it’s like I suddenly feel so… so… like sometimes I feel like… like…like I see the entire thing being so complicated. When we first arrived…lots of discrimination. So I feel something very angry, but it also happens to me that Chile represents like a rebirth and many positive things too, so it’s like a thing, like with mixed feelings.” (A, p. 77)

This experience of not being able to come to terms with one stable personal position regarding immigration appeared to be unsettling for Jaime, but also expressive of the impossibility to reduce the complexity of the experience. Immigration presents itself as a process that cannot be understood in dichotomous terms of either/or. Rather, it calls for a perspective that can suspend judgment and tolerate being present in all those multiple experiences, including experiences of increased vulnerability. In this regard, it is possible to think that for Ana and Jaime immigration lifts the veil — or the illusion — of having a unitary sense of self, making clearly visible the contingency of their identities. Or, to use Adrienne Harris’ (2009) concept, how their identities were softly assembled, and how they could be something else, someone else.

Jaime and Ana felt that being no one was challenging and threatening in terms of their identity, but it was also an opportunity. As Jaime expressed it:

The fact of being able to leave a country and enter a place where nobody knows you, enables you to…like to reinvent yourself or to experience those…those aspects that you hadn’t experienced much.” (B, p. 20)

Their narratives converged at this point. They both felt that their identity was stumbling; they were questioning their previous ways of life and constructions of themselves. Distance from their homeland had given them a new perspective on things, and that was challenging but not entirely bad, because it had offered them the possibility to “meet” new aspects of self, or to become reacquainted with some they had become estranged from in the past. In the words of Jaime:

“In my identity appeared a more political side, more rebellious. I don’t participate in any political party…but my critical side, more political, more reflexive [appeared], more like…identifying with social demands […] I feel that over there the issue of, of, of war, to attack guerrilla, the paramilitary issue…is like…even though I wasn´t close to it, but what was on the news, is like there is no possibility to think and reflect because it is like everything is happening so fast and there is no ‘stop and look’ and I felt that here in Chile I was being able to do that: stop and look at what Colombia was, what I was […] I connected with childhood stuff… I went back to being a child in terms of creativity, of, of being reflexive.” (A, p. 334)

For Jaime and Ana, immigration opened up a space to take some distance from previously expected roles related with class and gender, which in turn was experienced as a profoundly needed step to embrace who they were and develop a more authentic relationship with themselves and others. Jaime, after being a medical student in Colombia decided to transfer to a social sciences program, explaining:

Had I stayed in Colombia, I would have studied something more applied, something that could give me money […] like if one had grown up in a certain school, from that school most likely you would go to a certain university […] but I feel that here one can modify that…that linearity or, like, that predictability or, like, like what is expected from you because you belong to a certain social class.” (A, p. 338; B, p. 22)

Ana also felt that being away from her country, her family and their expectations had given her the opportunity to leave appearances behind and start living with more personal freedom:

It is incredible that house and home are here. Not in Colombia. I feel more like a tourist in Colombia. Here I feel calm. That’s the vision now, like the safe part here […] because I was finally able, because I finally could do my things here. Grow up, develop, get to know, be crushed, move forward, get a job here, have a life here. Maybe a life that I couldn’t have had there because I had to keep up appearances, try to please my family… things like that, you know? Like to carry that weight all the time, that weight to be signaled, all waiting to see what was I doing, what I didn’t do…not here. Here I am calm. Here I am myself. And that’s key.” (B, pp. 88-90)

These narratives show how for Ana and Jaime, immigration was closely related not only with multiple losses (which were undeniable) but also with cultural opening and self-growth. Their stories convey how, at some point in their immigration trajectories, more than struggling to hang on to their previous sense of self, they embraced the vulnerability of not knowing and took it as an opportunity to enrich their experiences of self. This does not mean to completely let go, or to relinquish who they were, but rather, to embrace a multiple-hyphenated identity. As Ana sharply expressed when reflecting on her process of transition to life in Chile “obviously it doesn’t mean that I have to stop being Colombian!” (B, p. 141).

However, the capacity to hold on to tension in favor of self-growth that they have developed is not always shared by people or institutions they come in contact with. Ana, for instance, cannot be legally Colombian and Chilean at the same time, at least not without staying in Chile for a number of years without leaving the country and visiting her family in Colombia. She feels that eventually she will have to choose. Jaime already chose to become a Chilean national, and so, his legal status falls short to reflect his identity.  This represents a failure of recognition, one that is not only experienced in relation with institutions, but also with people. In fact, they have found that people have difficulty accepting their experience of not being either/or but both and that they are called to define themselves in simpler terms. As Jaime expressed:

I nationalized Chilean, but I feel that I will be never recognized as Chilean whether it be because one never stops having an accent […] but it is an issue that is…is hard for one to integrate […] now I feel integrated, I feel validated, fine, comfortable, but is like that when people ask you ‘where are you from?’ it’s not easy…like for me, the most honest would be ‘I’m Chilean-Colombian’ ‘I’m Colombian-Chilean’ but I know is not something others can accept much.” (A, p. 338).

Following Harris’ (2009) ideas, it is possible to think that for Jaime and Ana the migratory experience opened the possibility to embrace a multiplicity of self-states and that, by doing so, unavoidably installed the notion of difference within themselves which, in turn, favored greater reflexivity. It is as if they had become more able to “stand in the spaces” as Bromberg (1998) conceptualizes it, maintaining “the capacity to feel like one self while being many” (p. 274).  However, as Jaime’s words remind us, their ability to embrace multiplicity often is not mirrored or recognized by the people and institutions they encounter in everyday life. Their experience represents a challenge for recognition and reminds us that, as Judith Butler (1999) posited, the expectancy of identity to be coherent responds to “frameworks of intelligibility” culturally defined, reflective of power dynamics more than of subjective experiences. From her perspective, the existence of cases that do not adapt to these rules shows the limits and regulatory purposes of these frameworks of intelligibility, revealing the possibility of alternatives.

In this regard, the concrete experiences of Ana, Jaime many other immigrants show the gap between theoretical developments and everyday life. As our theories move towards greater acceptance and appreciation of multiplicity and diversity, questioning the ideal of identity integration as unity and coherence, many of our cultural practices still embrace that ideal. If the experience of social recognition is key to achieving a sense of well-being, as many authors throughout the years have argued, and to be “feeling at home in one’s body,” to use Erikson’s (1946, p. 74) phrase, wouldn’t the social call for choosing between either/or self-states be a failure of recognition? How could we expect immigrants to hold on to the tension and complexity they have attained if that finds no resonance in the culture at large? Listening to the experiences of Ana and Jaime made me question how long they would be able to sustain their position before closing down the questions and shutting down some dimensions of self in favor of an easier “adaptation.” In this regard, we can hardly expect individuals to stay in a position of not always knowing, embracing vulnerability and uncertainty if society does not move in the same direction. Otherwise, we would be asking individuals – and maybe their therapists and significant others – to individually work through a discontent that goes beyond them, therefore privatizing it. Immigration makes evident the softly assembled nature of individual identity, but also of the host culture, showing that different values and ways of life are possible. There resides the source of the fear it can provoke, but also, the greater opportunity it offers.


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Andrea Rihm may be contacted at:

[1] The study in which this presentation is based received support from CONICYT/FONDAP/15130009

[2] Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

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